Penguin has just released its first official app for children, and it's a blast from the past
Topsy and Tim now on iPhone
Adults who remember the Topsy and Tim series of children's books from their childhoods in the 1960s and 1970s may be surprised to learn that the impish twins are still going strong. They might be astounded to discover that there's now a Topsy and Tim iPhone app.
Topsy and Tim: Start School is Penguin's first paid-for app and is designed to alleviate any anxieties a child may have about starting school for the first time. Intended for parental purchase - obviously - it allows the child to "walk through" a smoothly scrolling, animated first day.
First, children create avatars in their own likenesses and enter their school's name; then they pack their bags, find their coat pegs, go to lessons and then go home. It's sweet and funny, and while it would be a shame if it replaced the actual physical books in children's affections, it complements them superbly.
"The iPhone and iPad are really fantastic platforms on which to develop children's content due to their portable nature and the unique way in which children interact with them,' says Glynn Hayward, the creative director of Complete Control, which created the app for Ladybird, the classic children's imprint which has been part of Penguin since 1995. "Both the online and iPhone apps have so much depth and, most importantly, are really fun for children, helping them learn through play."
It's all a far cry, though, from the original Topsy and Tim books, written and drawn by Jean and Gareth Adamson and published by Blackie from the late 1950s until the 1970s. Not only do the mop-haired twins themselves look different, but the early books were educational in a random, quirky way; nothing like "Start School", which, if we're honest feels written-by-committee. (Gareth died in 1982. Jean is now in her 80s, and while she still has some input - sketching out rough concepts for a designer to illustrate - it's not clear if this extends to the writing. I suspect not.)
The Adamsons' intention when they started was to create a bright, modern-feeling and, above all, realistic alternative to Andy Pandy, Noddy, Thomas the Tank Engine, et al. Having a boy and a girl of the same age meant the books would have cross-gender appeal, and the scrapes they got into (eg accidentally selling an old lady's coat and handbag at a jumble sale) were wonderfully familiar and plausible. Gareth was fascinated by children's unpredictable responses to events and their surroundings: where an adult might expect them to be scared - at a safari park, say - they were often thrilled.
"I would do the basic subject research and layout," remembers Jean, who taught illustration and design at Goldsmith's College in London besides working in an advertising agency like her late husband. "And I would sketch out the bare bones of the plot. Gareth would then take over and produce a beautifully crafted storyline. I would then do the illustrations. We made a very good team."
The first Topsy and Tim book was Monday. It was a roaring success, so Blackie commissioned six more books themed around the other days of the week. The rest is history: more than 130 Topsy and Tims have been published in numerous formats. More than 21 million copies have been sold, and the series has never been out of print.
Considered now, the original books are rather dated - inevitably. It's rare for Dad in the books to do any childcare - though he's forced to comb the twins' hair and take them to school when Mummy is called away to help deliver a neighbour's baby. The series' universe teems with raffish, benevolent, frequently moustachioed uncle figures who drive the twins to the countryside in motorcycle side-cars (without helmets or seat-belts and stopping off at a lorry-drivers' café on the way).
If this world ever existed, it vanished a long time ago. But a part of the British public clearly wants some of it back - hence, the booming market in second-hand children's books. Stella and Rose's Books is an antiquarian store based in Hay-on-Wye in the UK, a town famous for its annual literary festival. It specialises in rare and out-of-print children's books, especially those dating from the Victorian and Edwardian Golden Age of book illustration - think Kate Greenaway, Beatrix Potter and Arthur Rackham. Rose's also stocks thousands of the Ladybird titles originally produced by the publisher Wills & Hepworth. The classic 30" by 40" Ladybirds appeared in the 1940s and were designed to make the most of both acute wartime paper shortages and the firm's idle presses (its core business was printing seed catalogues and stationery, demand for which had slumped).
"We get people of all ages coming in and looking for the books they had as children," says Catriona Charlesworth at Stella and Rose's Books. "Topsy and Tim is a case in point. In terms of what's popular, we go through phases with Biggles, Rupert annuals and the Chalet School. Enid Blyton is pretty constant, as are the Ladybird books."
Half of Stella and Rose's customers are casual shoppers; the other half are professional collectors - the kind of people who would be interested in the shop's most valuable book, a privately printed early edition of Beatrix Potter's Peter Rabbit, which will set you back £20,000 (Dh113,000). "I got to hold it just once!" Charlesworth laughs.
She thinks the enduring popularity of Ladybirds is to do with their physical sturdiness (they're jacketless hardbacks) and the quality of the information - about, say, the seaside, insects and outer space - that they contain. "We often get parents coming in and asking for Ladybirds that relate to a school project their children are doing. The information in them is incredibly accessible."
Perhaps it's fitting that Topsy and Tim should have ended up being published by Ladybird. But will today's six-year-olds spend their 30s and 40s hunting down "classic children's apps"? It seems inevitable.
Ÿ Topsy and Tim: Start School is available from the Apple app store. See also: www.topsyandtim.com. Stella and Rose's Books can be found online at www.stellabooks.com